Blaxploitation star Fred Williamson still putting down the ‘hammer’ at 78
The former Pro Bowler on #OscarsSoWhite, the softer side of the NFL and why ballers need to be charmers
Fred Williamson came out of the blaxploitation era — a misnomer, in his eyes — as one of its most successful action stars. He was literally called, Boss N—–. Whether it was as the leader of a black crime syndicate in New York City, the handsome lawyer boyfriend of television’s first black female star, a prize-fighting boxer, or a martial-arts-trained businessman, the Indiana-born Williamson, now 78, was a mixture of suaveness, strength, and, dare I say, stamina. Not content with just starring in movies and on television, he also wrote, produced and directed his own content, and has over four decades of credits. The former AFL/NFL defensive back projected black male strength and sophistication to mainstream audiences via his Po’ Boy Productions. Nicknamed “The Hammer,” Williamson peddled malt liquor decades before LeBron James took his first sip of Gatorade. He manned the Monday Night Football booth (for one preseason, at least) almost 10 years before O.J. Simpson made his way to NBC.
In recent years, Williamson has turned up in a 2004 reboot of Starsky & Hutch, a recurring role in Real Husbands of Hollywood, and he’s set to produce and star in at least three films over the next few years. He recently hooked up with African-American broadcast network Bounce TV for the launch of its streaming service, Brown Sugar.
You’re officially credited with 124 acting roles and 41 directing/producing roles.
I got into producing and directing for the simple reason they want to kill the black guy in the first five minutes of the film — and have Arnold Schwarzenegger avenge his death. That’s not what I got into the business for. Kill Schwarzenegger and let me avenge his death. That’s what I’m about. I’ve got three rules in Hollywood: (1) You can’t kill me in the movie, (2) I want to win all my fights in a movie, and (3) I get the girl at the end of the movie if I want her. I throw in the third one knowing full well that they’re not going to give me that one, so I give them an out by saying, ‘You’ve got to do two out of the three.’
Jim Brown also got into acting after he left football. What type of relationship do you two have?
My golfing buddy. I give a tournament every year, he shows up. When I’m in L.A., I call him. We’re tight, we’re good friends, because we came up together the same way, with the same obstacles in front of us, people telling us what we can’t do. The kind of characters that we want to play, they weren’t used to that kind of strong black man.
Both of you, in separate issues, posed for Playgirl magazine. How did that come to be?
Oh, well [laughter]. Mine came first, because Burt Reynolds showed his little skinny white butt on a rug on Cosmopolitan. So Playgirl says, ‘We got something bigger and better than that.’ And they brought ‘The Hammer’ out. But I kept my stuff hidden. I had a little pussycat in front of me … I didn’t let my stuff hang. That’s not my style. Jim came after that, but he let his stuff hang. So, I said, ‘Dude, you’re bolder than I am, man. I ain’t about to let my stuff out.’
You’re known as The Hammer. You want the girl at the end. But you weren’t going to let it hang?
It hangs in private, homeboy.
The lack of representation in film is a hot-button issue — including the #OscarsSoWhite backlash with the Academy Awards — what can be done to improve diversity?
Not a thing. They don’t need us. The only way it can change is that we have a company or companies together to make the kind of films that black audiences want to see with their characters out front doing the things normal people do. We don’t have the power. It takes power to make a change … It’s that simple. You can complain all you want, you can march, you can picket and put posters around. They’re not going to make any changes for you because you feel there should be more black roles. They don’t care, man.
I’m not sure there’s a power there. He has the ability to get financing because the kind of films he’s done have been very profitable. So they’re looking at him as a profit source. And they loan him money to do that. That’s not a production company. That’s him being able to raise money to do the films he wants to do — starring him. That’s not the same thing as having a company. A company hires other people to give them chances to do something different, give them chances to show their talent or to create an image that is good for the world market. What he’s doing is good — good for him. But … that’s not the same thing I’m talking about.
You’ve been credited as being one of professional football’s first self-promoters. What do you think of players such as Cam Newton who are described in the same manner?
They have no idea how to do it with style. You can get your point across doing it the same way, but you have to put the public and people who watch you in a situation — like Muhammad Ali did, like I did — and have people walk away and say, Is he really serious? Is he really like that? Does he really means what he says? You can’t do it with a hostile personality. You have to have charm. These guys don’t know how to do it. They do it with anger, and they do it with braggadocio. Without charm … pretty soon everybody’s going to dislike you. Even black people are going to dislike you.
Does anyone come to mind who you think is doing it the right way?
Well, I think [Richard] Sherman is an example of doing it the wrong way. And Newton, too, is doing it the wrong way. You’re having a bad game, still, go talk to the people.
Do you have a favorite player right now?
I like [Ezekiel] Elliott for the Dallas Cowboys. He has a little thing that he does when he scores, but he doesn’t overdo it. He doesn’t jump up and down and do all the funny dances and all that stuff. He has a little hand wave that he does, which is kind of cool. That’s not offensive. That’s not in your face. These guys, every time they accomplish something, it’s like in your face, which is OK. But when you do something negative, I want to see the same dance. I want to see you celebrate that you did something stupid. You just missed a tackle, you just jumped offsides. Jump up and down, do the same thing.
You were a Pro Bowl defensive back in the NFL. Who of the current crop of “elite” corners do you see yourself the most in as a former player?
I like Sherman. He’s a cover guy. He covers one-on-one with everybody in the league, which leaves the defense free to do other things when they know they’ve got a guy over there that can cover one-on-one. It’s a lonely spot out there, dude. The cornerback can be a hero and a chump all within five minutes. It’s an individual fight. That’s the way I played the game.
What do you think of today’s games, with increased attention on unnecessary roughness and penalties for head-to-head hits?
Next year, it’ll be flag football. You got to wear pink flags in your hiney, and if they pull your flag out, you’re down.
You believe the game has gotten softer in a sense?
The game has changed, and it’s become less exciting. College football is more exciting, and I think they let the players play a little bit rougher. Players play harder because they want to be pros so they don’t have to play hard anymore, because they’re looking for a big payday. College football is gaining success because of the weakness in the National Football League. Guys make so much money that [the teams] don’t want their key players to get hurt. So they make all these rules so that multimillion-dollar players don’t get their finger broke.
Some of the rules are put in place to protect against head injuries and possible brain trauma. Are the rules in place adequate to prevent that?
Listen, I played 12 years, man, I can find my way home. You open the door, I can walk out. I can walk around the block and find my way home. The thing that they’re not addressing that nobody has talked about is that damn artificial turf. That’s a double hit. You get hit and bounce your head off that stuff, that’s where the pain comes. That’s where the bad knees come. That’s where the hip pointers come. Owners won’t address that because it costs money to have real grass out there, to have the groundskeeper, and keep the grass up. Once they lay down this fake grass, it’s there forever.
What in the late 1960s made you say, “I want to get into acting”?
Once I stopped playing football … I didn’t want to sell cars. I didn’t want to be an insurance salesman like most of the players coming out, you know? You weren’t making enough money back in the day to support yourself on a football salary. You had to have a second job. My signing bonus when I came out of Northwestern was $1,900. My starting salary $9,005. So I wasn’t rich, dude. I wasn’t a high-paid football player. One night I’m watching television, and I see Diahann Carroll had a show called Julia. First black actress to have her own television series. I noticed that each week, the guest star role was a new boyfriend. And I said … ‘I’m better looking than those guys. I’m going to Hollywood to become Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend on the Julia show.’ And that’s what I did.
It’s been estimated that you made just $40,000 per season playing football.
That was my max. That was the most I made. That was it, my last season. I don’t think Jim Brown ever made $100,000. We weren’t making any money. The owners were making all the money. It didn’t change until they had the  strike.
How important is a streaming service like Brown Sugar for African-Americans?
It’s always a good thing to be remembered. I’ve done so many films, and I’m sure that people have not seen all of them. I don’t like the terminology ‘black exploitation,’ because I don’t know what it means. I don’t know who was being exploited. The fans were seeing something that they hadn’t seen before and were enjoying it. The actors were working, making more money than they ever made before. So I don’t know who the hell was being exploited.